Ambiguous Abbott: Choosing a side
It was 2013, and in a small town in North Carolina, Krystal Anne Quiñones Abbott was in middle school. She vaguely remembers being dressed up for a choir concert, instrument case in hand. Both of her parents were in attendance. She could see them in the crowd.
But what she vividly remembers is when a classmate in the stands behind her asked which woman in the sea of parents was her mother. Unsure why many years later, Abbott panicked. Biting her tongue, she lied and said she couldn’t see her, even as her mother beamed at her from somewhere in the first couple of rows.
“I remember not wanting to walk with my mom, or say that that was my mom, or be around her because she didn’t look like all the other skinny, white, rich moms. I remember, sometimes, I would even lie about who my parents were. I don’t know, as a kid, I didn’t know better.”
Abbott, 20, is now a fourth-year health science and psychology combined major at Northeastern University. It wasn’t until college that she even started introducing herself with her middle name, she says, with Quiñones. It wasn’t worth the mispronunciation. At first glance, Abbott looks racially ambiguous, although she reveals people tend to swing one of two ways in deciding what she is: white or Mexican. She’s neither.
Born to a Filipino mother and a white father in Staten Island, New York, Abbott’s family of three didn’t stay in one place for very long. From New York, the trio moved to a small town in North Carolina. For high school, Abbott headed back east to D.C. When she’s not in Boston for college, Abbott stays in a small apartment with her dad in Manhattan.
She doesn’t quite look the same as she did in middle school. Mid-semester, Abbott cropped her brunette, shoulder-length hair and got rid of the faded, crimson balayage she previously wore in a ponytail. Abbott has a matching tattoo she shares with her Filipino half-sister on her mom’s side.
It reads “Bahala Na” in Tagalog, the national language of the Philippines. It can have different meanings in other dialects, but the clean translation is along the lines of “trust the universe.” She likes the explicit version better. When she smiles, she has her father’s dimples. Her half-Trinidadian brother on her father’s side, from his previous marriage, does too.
“Clearly my dad has a type,” she jokes, “Not white.”
The rise of multiracial and multiethnic children coincides with the growth in marriages between spouses of different races or ethnicities. According to a 2017 Pew Research Center report, 7 percent of all newlyweds were in an intermarriage in 1980, but that number more than doubled by 2015. Abbott is the product of those statistics, the only child of her mother and father’s second marriages. Both of their previous marriages were to other people of color.
Abbott gets quiet when the topic of her mom comes up. She can barely get the words out, eyes downcast, tears quickly streaming down her cheeks as she reveals her mom passed away about a year ago. She doesn’t elaborate. Unlike her mom’s side of the family, with whom she is more familiar, Abbott knows little of her dad’s side of the family.
“They’re just very…white. Classic U.S.A. Traditionally conservative. Pretty sure they came on the Mayflower like they’re that white.” Abbott scrunches her nose up in unmistakable distaste. “From what my dad has said when he talks about them, which he doesn’t even like to do because it makes him deeply upset, they seem like the type to be like, ‘I don’t see color,’ and think it’s coming from a good place.”
The middle school Abbott attended in North Carolina was a magnet school, but its location in a lower-income neighborhood created a tense racial dynamic she didn’t fully understand at the time. “The word — I hate using this word — the word ‘ghetto’ was used so much. The on-level kids, the kids from that neighborhood, were literally referred to as the ‘ghetto’ kids.”
The particular use of the word “ghetto” represents two-fold discrimination: “the historical and sociological racialized poverty and oppression that is unique to blacks,” according to a University of Central Florida study. Her affluent, white peers were in the higher academic program, so she was lumped in with them despite being racially and ethnically more like those referred to as “ghetto.”
“I didn’t even realize how messed up it was until right after I moved to D.C. I would never use this language now to refer to anybody. So why was that the language that we all used, even me, as if it was normal?”
And then, her family traded in the small-town suburbs for the fast-paced political capital. Her experience in D.C. would allow for an exploration of the other side of her identity. “It was weird because I grew up feeling like I didn’t fit in with any of the white people, but then I came to D.C. and there’s this big Filipino population, but I felt like I didn’t fit in with them either.”
What Abbott describes is a common occurrence mixed-race kids go through, where they don’t fit into either aspect of their racial makeup. Studies in multiracial research and identity exploration illustrate that mixed populations struggle with not only questions of identity and where to fit in, but often battle with the pressure to “choose” a side.
Does she struggle with her mixed identity? “I think now I don’t…” she trails off, then shakes her head, laughing. “That’s false, actually. Definitely as a kid, I had no clue my identity made me different. And now, even though I’m very proud to be Filipino, I am also half-white.”
According to the Pew Research Center, 60 percent of multiracial adults are proud of their mixed-race background and another 59 percent feel their racial heritage makes them more welcoming of other cultures.
“This is my identity. This is an important part of me. This is my culture, and I wouldn’t want to be anything else. And for someone who didn’t always want to be that when I was younger and went through different paths in the journey of figuring out my identity, it was nice to get to college and have that solidified in me.”
Abbott pauses, as if letting it sink in for a moment. She hadn’t said that out loud, she says. “I wouldn’t want to be any other race or ethnicity. I am proud of who I am. And that’s the end of it.”